Napping is far from a new concept. In fact, you could say we’ve been napping, in some sense or other, for as long as we’ve known how to sleep, from afternoon siestas in hot countries and the iconic ‘power naps’ of world leaders, to the snore-filled snoozes of grandads in front of the TV.
But the term’s been cropping up more and more within the ‘wellness’ and ‘productivity’ realms in recent years, and it’s no coincidence that these things overlap (well, if you want to convince a company to buy-in to promoting workforce wellbeing, show them how much they’ll gain in increased output and less work days lost to sickness, etc).
While breaking up the working day with a nap is far from mainstream in Western culture, it’s an idea that’s catching on, especially as we continue in our quests to both squeeze out every ounce of potential we can possibly offer, while also ticking those work-life balance and self-care boxes.
Research at the University of Pennsylvania published in January found short afternoon naps were associated with improved thinking and memory skills, and make the brain perform as though it was ‘five years younger’.
Regular nappers may even enjoy better health, and earlier this year, napping was dubbed the ‘secret to happiness’, after researchers at Hertfordshire University found people fond of short naps (under 30-minutes) reported higher levels of happiness (66%) than people who took long naps (56%), or no naps at all (60%).
Hertfordshire University’s Professor Richard Wiseman commented: “Previous research has shown naps of under 30 minutes make you more focused and creative. These new findings suggest you can also become happier by just taking a short nap,” adding: “Short naps boost performance and highly successful companies such as Ben & Jerry’s and Google have installed dedicated nap spaces.”
Snooze, don’t lose
Indeed – sleep pods, napping areas, chill-out zones – a number of companies, many of them the big, global, mega-successful types, are adding these things to their employee-wellbeing armoury.
Nike’s headquarters in Oregon has ‘quiet rooms’, while Google famously boasts ‘nap pods’, and Huffington Post pioneer Arianna Huffington is a well-known advocate of workplace naps.
So, is there really something to be said for the humble power nap, and could they really be beneficial to over-stretched workers?
“Without a doubt,” says leading UK sleep expert Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, who works with Silentnight and has authored a string of books on the subject of slumber, including Tired But Wired: How To Overcome Your Sleep Problems, The Essential Sleep Toolkit.
“There’s so much demand in today’s world and for most of us, it’s incredibly hard to step off the treadmill. We are constantly being bombarded by information and power napping is the most effective way of just briefly going offline and allowing ourselves to rebalance before getting back on the treadmill again – with renewed energy and focus.
“And it needn’t be long – studies show that even a five-minute nap can increase mental focus and cognitive performance. And naps should be taken at some point between 2-4pm and no later, otherwise they can affect your ability to sleep at night.”
In fact, it shouldn’t be long – as napping beyond that magic 20-minute point could mean you end up even groggier, and certainly not feeling super-sharp and ready to plough through those afternoon to-do lists like a happy, healthy clam.
We need to be careful, though. Email and smartphones were meant to help bolster productivity and efficiency too – and look where that’s left (most of) us? More stressed, sleep-deprived and work-addicted than ever.
Naps are great, if they’re simply a restorative addition to our day. But if they’re merely going to distract us from the fact we’re over-working and running on empty, then they’re possibly not the healthiest solution long-term.
“I’ve started to receive a lot more questions about ‘napping’ in recent years,” says James Hewitt, head of Science & Innovation at Hintsa, who advises F1 teams and business executives on performance. “There seem to be two main drivers for this: People trying to ‘optimise’ performance, and people trying to survive!
“Some studies suggest a 10-30-minute nap can improve alertness and performance for up to two to three hours. There are even suggestions that increased productivity following a nap outweighs the time used for napping. For some clients, I’d go as far to suggest that ‘napping is the new caffeine’.
“Napping and caffeine can both be effective ‘survival strategies’ to improve alertness when sleep-restriction is unavoidable, such as during long-haul travel, for example.
“However, I think the search for a quick-fix to improve our alertness during the day may actually be masking root causes,” he cautions. “Maybe we feel like we are struggling to pay attention because we are sleep-deprived due to using bright, electronic screens too close to bedtime. Often, I think our sensation of struggling to concentrate is compounded by our distracted habits at work and at home; constantly switching tasks and dividing our attention in multiple directions.
“Whatever the case, it’s often the people who need to pay attention the most, who are the most distracted and find themselves struggling to stay alert.”